Meditation and psychedelics are being considered as treatments for depression and anxiety
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental disorders
Early evidence shows psychedelics and meditation may have some similar effects on brain activity
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Do you ever find yourself worrying about an upcoming situation, even though similar past experiences have worked out fine? Or do you worry about your relationship or finances in a way that is out of proportion with your actual circumstances? These are classic symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety disorders, along with depression, are among the most common mental disorders in the world today. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and affects 350 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Treatment for the conditions are wide-ranging, from prescription drugs to counseling and therapy, but none have proven to have a universal effect.
Scientists are currently trialling meditation and, more controversially, psychedelic drugs as potential treatments due to their perspective-altering effect on the mind. Scientists hope that could help release people from being locked into depressive, or worrying, thoughts.
But recent work has begun investigating whether these two contrasting treatments activate the same regions of the brain to give similar benefits.
Meditation or psychedelics?
“Meditation interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety… it is a powerful and established method to alter human consciousness,” said Frederick Barrett, a behavioral neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. His team focus on practices that can affect human consciousness.
Recent trials with psilocybin – the active ingredient found in “magic,” or psychedelic mushrooms – have also been shown to be effective against both anxiety and depression. In a recent study by researchers at Imperial College London, people with depression were given two controlled doses of psilocybin and their symptoms were reduced for up to three months after they received the drugs. Symptoms of anxiety were also shown to improve.
“Psilocybin administered properly and under supervision can see a change in emotional well-being,” said Barrett. “Meditation is also an established method.”
The point? “One is pharmaceutical and one isn’t,” said Barrett.
To find out their similarities, and potentially combine them as a treatment, his team are currently studying the brains of people with long-term Buddhist meditation practices by imaging their brain activity inside an fMRI scanner while they meditate. Participants are divided into groups for researchers to better determine the effect on meditation – and their brain – after taking low and high doses of psilocybin, or a placebo.
The trial is currently ongoing, but preliminary results are promising. “It’s too early to say, but so far we’ve seen positive effects of psilocybin on well-being and mediation practices.”
Why is this needed?
Meditation is no easy task and can be extremely challenging as a novice, so the idea behind the study is to reveal whether psychedelics offer a similar change in perspective and if so, use them as an alternative therapy.
“Psilocybin could be a second-line treatment for patients who meditation doesn’t work for,” said Barrett.
Another idea is the use of these drugs to help people explore their consciousness and improve their ability to concentrate – and eventually meditate.